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Plant seeds hitch rides on shoes

15 October 2008

Extracting seeds from a shoeIt is often suggested that dispersal of seeds by humans is responsible for the spread of plants around the world, and may lead to non-native species invasions. Until now this has remained conjecture, because the human-mediated dispersal mechanism has never been quantified.  A new study, published earlier this month in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provides the first quantitative evidence that humans may be more important than natural agents, such as wind power, for the dispersal of plants across the landscape.

The study was led by Dr Matthias Wichmann from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), who devised an experiment to discover how far two wild plant seeds might be dispersed by attachment to hikers’ boots.

Dr Wichmann said, “We’ve never looked at quantifying how many seeds get transported over what distances. While such long-distance dispersal by walking might be rare, it might have a profound effect on the spread of certain species, particularly invasive ones that are new to a region.”

Shoe with seedsThe experiment involved colleagues wearing hiking shoes or rubber boots who first stepped in mud, then in a tray containing a specific number of seeds, and then walked a given distance, from one metre to five kilometres. The seeds remaining on the shoes were then counted.

The results suggest that while wind dispersal takes seeds a few metres, adhesion to boots dispersed seeds over five kilometres. Dr Wichman added, “Only a few seeds may go very far, but these are important seeds - the pioneers – as they colonize new sites.”

The research was carried out by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology together with colleagues from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and the University of Marburg in Germany.

Additional information

Media enquiries about this work should be directed to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology press office.

Press coverage: New York Times - Plant Seeds Hitch Rides on Traveling Shoes – 10 October 2008

Proceedings of the Royal Society B homepage (subscription may be required for full access to the paper)

Full paper reference: Matthias C. Wichmann, Matt J. Alexander, Merel B. Soons, Stephen Galsworthy, Laura Dunne, Robert Gould, Christina Fairfax, Marc Niggemann, Rosie S. Hails and James M. Bullock. Human-mediated dispersal of seeds over long distances. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences . DOI 10.1098/rspb.2008.1131